From what I know developed countries seem to have stayed developed (or at least recovered quickly) even if there was a devastating war, e.g. Germany after WW2. If it's indeed the case that developed countries tend to stay developed, I wonder why - in other endeavours such as sports, if one does not practice, one's skill decreases quickly. That would seem to indicate that getting to a developed state is hard, but getting "undeveloped" is easy. Besides, if it's easy for a formerly-developed state to become developed again quickly, that should also indicate that currently-developing countries should be able to develop quickly, and that's clearly not the case.

The easiest explanation is that my knowledge is wrong. Is it? Were there any developed countries that became "undeveloped" for reasons other than war?

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    Isn't the answer implicit in the definition of the term developed country? It is developed "relative to other less industrialized nations". May 19, 2019 at 10:17
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    China in 1750 until China in 1850 might meet your criteria. Although I bet you are speaking about the modern era. And if you are speaking about the modern era, probably not a long enough timescale for infrastructure to deteriorate completely May 19, 2019 at 10:29
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    @sempaiscuba That "industrialized" part raises some problems by definitions and common understanding, as British manfacturing would now imply that UK became an undeveloped country. All these outsourcings to China etc… But interesting as it is, underdeveloped, undeveloped, '3rd world' status etc could do with presenting a better definition each, here, in the question. May 19, 2019 at 10:34
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    @LangLangC No, it would imply that the UK is now a less-developed country than it once was (and will probably become less-developed still post-Brexit, if the economic projections are correct), but it still remains a 'developed country'. As the definition states, it's a relative term. May 19, 2019 at 10:40
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    @sempaiscuba I don't see how that definition implies the answer?
    – Allure
    May 19, 2019 at 11:26

5 Answers 5


I'd pick Argentina in the run-up to the Great Depression:

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Argentina outgrew Canada and Australia in population, total income, and per capita income. By 1913, Argentina was the world's 10th wealthiest state per capita.

Beginning in the 1930s, however, the Argentine economy deteriorated notably. The single most important factor in this decline has been political instability since 1930, when a military junta took power, ending seven decades of civilian constitutional government. In macroeconomic terms, Argentina was one of the most stable and conservative countries until the Great Depression, after which it turned into one of the most unstable.

Despite this, up until 1962 the Argentine per capita GDP was higher than of Austria, Italy, Japan and of its former colonial master, Spain. Successive governments from the 1930s to the 1970s pursued a strategy of import substitution to achieve industrial self-sufficiency, but the government's encouragement of industrial growth diverted investment from agricultural production, which fell dramatically.

The era of import substitution ended in 1976, but at the same time growing government spending, large wage increases and inefficient production created a chronic inflation that rose through the 1980s. The measures enacted during the last dictatorship also contributed to the huge foreign debt by the late 1980s, which became equivalent to three-fourths of the GNP.

In the early 1990s the government reined in inflation by making the peso equal in value to the U.S. dollar, and privatised numerous state-run companies, using part of the proceeds to reduce the national debt. However, a sustained recession at the turn of the 21st century culminated in a default, and the government again devalued the peso. By 2005 the economy had recovered, but a judicial ruling originating from the previous crisis led to a new default in 2014.

  • I'm from the States, and have visited to Buenos Ares, India, and Guatemala. From what I saw, Arentina is most certainly a developed country. Good contribution to this question though. May 19, 2019 at 17:31
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    @axsvl77: Not disagreeing in principle that Argentina is developed compared to India or Guatemala. Still, on the one hand side, it depends on how one defines developed. On the other hand side, there's an argument to be made that, given its trajectory in the preceding decades, Argentina might have a GDP per capita somewhere between that of Spain and Australia today had it not been for its setbacks in the 20th century. May 19, 2019 at 19:09

There is a very questionable assumption here that it was "easy" for West Germany or any other European country to quickly regain their positions among the world's leading industrial powers. It is by no means clear that this would have been accomplished without the United States' strategic decision and practical capacity to invest heavily in the Marshall Plan and related policies. I would be very careful to draw any general conclusions based on this rather exceptional case. In fact the stunning economic advancement of certain newly industrialized countries in East Asia during the late 20th century (most notably South Korea and Taiwan) could support the interpretation that similar geopolitical interactions with the United States were more generally a central determinant of economic development status in the twentieth century.

As has been discussed in the comments, the definition of "developed country" status is also a difficult issue. The wording of the question implies a share binary between "developed" and "non-developed" status. Any such definition would be arbitrary, as there is in fact a gradient between middle-income and high-income status.

A different and more systematic approach would be to look at estimates of per capita GDP in general, in order to compare where countries stand in relation to one another over time. An OECD report entitled The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective by Angus Maddison compiles a lot of relevant data for this. One interesting pattern we can pick out of this data (Table B-21, p. 264) is the collapse of the former USSR. In 1973, that region was solidly middle-income at $6,058 per capita. This was roughly 50% of per capita income in the 12 leading European economies at the time, and 36% of that in the United States but over 7 times that of Africa. Looking ahead to 1998, the former USSR was down to just $3,893 per capita, 64% of what it was a quarter-century earlier. In relative terms, the drop was at least as dramatic. The per capital income of the former USSR in 1998 was less than 21% of that in the leading countries of Western Europe, 14% of the United States and less then 3 times that of Africa.

This case stands out in this particular data set as is it is the only absolute decline in per capita GDP I am seeing at all. There is also a significant relative decline in Latin America compared to more advanced economies from 1950 to 1973. In 1950, per capita income in Latin America ($2,554) was almost 51% of that in the leading 12 Western European economies ($5,013). Although Latin American per capita income nearly doubled to $4,531 by 1973, this was a decline in relative terms, down to 37% of the leading countries in Western Europe which had nearly tripled theirs to $12,159 in the same period.

  • I agree that it wasn't "natural" for W. Germany to "bounce back" after WWII. The Marshall Plan was certainly a huge part in that, not following the Morgenthau Plan (and earlier, Hitler's Nero Decree) was probably just as important. However, I intensely dislike the conclusion that "geopolitical interactions with the United States" were the secret sauce. Engaging in global trade, more like. Yes, the USA are a huge economy, but they aren't special, magical or anything.
    – DevSolar
    May 20, 2019 at 10:06
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    The statistics about 1973 USSR are dubious at best.
    – sds
    May 20, 2019 at 15:46
  • @DevSolar: Germany bounced back even faster after WWI, without any Marshall Plan. In fact they bounced back so fast that they almost conquered the world. So this time, we have to leave them divided and under permanent military supervision.. And thus NATO was born May 21, 2019 at 21:06
  • @sofageneral WWI and WWII can hardly be compared with regards to devastation to Germany's infrastrcture...
    – DevSolar
    May 23, 2019 at 10:40

The terms "developed", "underdeveloped" and "developing" are essentially political labels, and very much a question of perspective, i.e. Eurocentric. Much of the policy or debates surrounding these terms lack proper context of local societies and views "progress" (and development) in terms of material wealth (e.g GDP).

This is probably not the answer, nor the place, to go into the nuanced argument against Eurocentric labels in development studies. And so, I recommend a short article from 1995, "Universalism, Eurocentrism, and Ideological Bias in Development Studies: From Modernisation to Neoliberalism" Third World Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 121-140.

Pushing the logic of realpolitik to its maximum, by definition, "developed" nations are OECD countries that cannot fail. So, the question by OP is a paradox, until we are careful and cognisant of the perspective/bias we are adopting.

I don't mean to say OP is Eurocentric. All I'm saying is historians are generally careful of these labels because these labels are more useful for political purposes, than history. James Blaut's work is instructive here altho' he did not get to finish his trilogy because he passed away suddenly in 2000.

  • That is true... Most people would put Greece, Portugal and Poland among the developed nations..... but they probably don't compare favorably against some of the developing nations on a number of key statistics .. May 21, 2019 at 21:10
  • @sofageneral - Here's another perspective: "With a population of 1.3 billion, China is the world’s second largest economy and the largest if measured in purchasing price parity terms. China has been the largest single contributor to world growth since the global financial crisis of 2008" (World Bank). But China is not a developed country because it is not an OECD member. China does not qualify because of political, not economic, criteria. Hence, my point above.
    – J Asia
    May 22, 2019 at 18:52
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    @ J Asia: I wouldn't worry too much about labels.... all the wars are among men who claim to be good, just and godly. Developed, developing, undeveloped... are all just more labels... I have never been overly uptight about lies and propaganda.. . My only advice is.. if must lie, do not believe one's own lies... (which unfortunately is something we are exceedingly good at in the west.) May 22, 2019 at 19:08

The Ottoman Empire was highly developed in the 16th century and pretty backward by 1850. This was not primarily the result of wars, but of the world passing it by.

  • They fought the greatest empires at the time in WWI and held their own (with a bit of German help). One can easily argue that the ottoman performed better than the austro Hungarian empire. and They are still considered a developed country. May 21, 2019 at 21:00
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    They technically didn't even hold their own for the last several decades of peace, e.g., Egypt, Bosnia from 1878, etc., etc. They only survived until WWI because England couldn't let Russia take the straits, and Russia couldn't let anyone else do it.
    – C Monsour
    May 21, 2019 at 23:06

I can notice a few examples in all historical timeframe:

The Empire of Minos in the island of Crete was a developed empire, according to antiquity standards, as it includes a true administration, artisanal and nearly-industrial fleet building, and massive trade. It was possibily leveled by a natural catastrophe, but wars with the Mycenians based in Greece also played a role.

The empires in India and Angkor had successevely decreased and the regions occupied by theses empires sometimes lost infrastructure (ie development). Wars played a role, but internal desorganization and difficulties to provide enough subsidies to the population was also a cause of internal desorganisation.

The African empires that occupied parts of Sahara are not well-known, but it seems that the desertification destroyed their infrastructures and administrations.

The indonesian societies, and especially Bali, were also crushed by a volcanic eruption.

In modern era, we notice temporary lack of developed characteristics, like education, electrical power, fuel supplies and organized military. The ex-USSR in the 90ies and maybe Venezuela today presents these characteristics, but it was only a temporary situation: Today's Russia is catching up with the benefit of the infrastructures, that did not become totally insane after a few years of lack of organisation.

I hope this patch of examples helps. It is mainly about natural catastrophes, but also about internal political desorganisation, where corruption and crime seem more destructive than civil or external wars.

Edit: I notice someone answered at the same time, with more data on the ex-USSR example

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